MLB's top prospects provide hope for rebuilding teams. Why do ownership progeny insist on souring it?
Execs such as the Reds' Phil Castellini seem to bristle at the notion that they are in the business of entertaining fans and competing.
Baseball’s season of eternal hope is dawning. No, it’s not exactly spring, but the summer game’s optimism sprouts long before actual greenery.
The new year is no longer all that new. MLB’s offseason free-agent market is mostly through with its business. And the unwieldy bounty of last year’s less visible work is being harvested and organized into those two main sources of anticipatory sustenance: projections and prospect rankings.
For surefire contenders, there are division rivals and pennant chases to banter about. For teams currently less certain of their October plans, there are the players who might change that — this year or for the next decade. Fans of clubs with bleak immediate outlooks have increasingly found solace and even excitement in the talent bubbling up through the minors.
There are, once again, many Large Adult Sons to hype up and rally around. If only the Rich Adult Sons could get out of the way.
In Cincinnati, many Reds fans likely turned the calendar with hard-earned finality. That was the teardown. This is the buildup toward something bigger and better. This is the team rolling out the collection of young players acquired for Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle and others. This is the team awaiting the towering but twitchy Elly De La Cruz, the 6-foot-5 marvel of a shortstop who might be baseball’s answer to Victor Wembanyama.
They didn’t even make it to the end of January before that sunny program was replaced by a new episode of an unsolicited, unwanted, nepo baby comedy — too dour and too ham-handed to be called a “Succession” ripoff and more infuriating because it’s real life. Reds president Phil Castellini — who in April 2022 responded to questions about ownership’s commitment to winning by asking, “Well, where you gonna go?” and saying new owners would move the team — this month reappeared at a fan group luncheon to seek sympathy over the supposed lack of profit margins.
As reported by The Athletic and documented by several attendees on Twitter, Castellini — whose father, Bob, is the Reds' principal owner — claimed the team “operates like a nonprofit.” Setting aside the minor detail that no one is allowed to sell, say, the American Red Cross for a billion dollars, as Castellini's family could absolutely choose to do with the Cincinnati Reds, his claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny on an annual profit and loss level.
On the #reds and their new right fielder. (Excerpt.)https://t.co/yxOrFwheIy pic.twitter.com/PvEqXnHPO7
— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) December 22, 2022
Baseball writer Joe Sheehan calculated that the Reds are guaranteed $108 million in revenue from television contracts before even factoring in money generated from attendance and other shared league sources. The Reds’ projected 2023 payroll currently stands at about $97 million.
If Castellini wants to play fast and loose with the team’s financials, fine, there’s not a lot to be done about that. But once he invoked the “nonprofit” idea, you might've thought he'd have the PR sense to tout the team’s plan to invest in success. And you’d have thought wrong. According to a season ticket-holder who attended the event and spoke to the Athletic, Castellini did eventually bring up the burgeoning farm system that could produce great Reds, only to pop that balloon by saying, “Of course, we’re going to lose them.”
Castellini isn't the only principal owner’s son to lash out recently over the terrible burden that is owning a major sports franchise. As a thumb-twiddling offseason rode the tails of a breakout 2022 season, Baltimore Orioles chairman John Angelos scolded a reporter at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event for asking about the future ownership of the team, which has been a subject of speculation.
“I think your focus is completely out of touch and has no perspective whatsoever on what real-world people face and what the real pillar and role of an organization like the Orioles and [Baltimore] Ravens ought to be,” Angelos told the reporter, making a midstream offer to open the team financials to reporters on any other day.
Although seemingly about to escape the shadow of a lockout and two pandemic-shaded seasons — and on course to begin new eras of contention either imminently or in the foreseeable future — neither team could resist parading their children-turned-team-officials in front of microphones to exhibit absolute disdain for their fans.
These sorts of displays — more than last-place projections or thin prospect lists — are the wet blankets of baseball. We saw plenty of this during the pandemic-instigated labor sparring and in the lockout negotiations. It’s hard to say if the recent errant fireworks are remnants of those fights or simply precursors of the next round of sport-shaping talks in four years.
What’s increasingly clear is that some ownership groups are bristling at the notion that they are in the business of competing, of entertaining fans. Or at least at the idea that failing in either respect should reflect on them or their bank accounts.
Four #Reds on this list, starting with Elly De La Cruz at No. 8. Also: Noelvi Marte (63), Edwin Arroyo (65) and Cam Collier (70). https://t.co/w5Qr2MVZIx
— C. Trent Rosecrans (@ctrent) January 18, 2023
Castellini — who didn’t help matters by telling his barber to give him the Gordon Gekko — spent most of his talk to the fan group bemoaning how many teams are out of contention on Opening Day and how inequitably revenues are distributed in MLB, in which the lack of a full salary cap leaves more room for regional disparities. What he didn’t mention is that those two partially true lines of thought don’t have to correlate.
The Cleveland Guardians, right across the state, have spent less than the Reds in each of the past five seasons and all but three of the past 10. Cleveland — which isn’t immune to worthy criticism about a lack of spending — has made the playoffs six times and played in a classic World Series in large part by helping young players such as Jose Ramirez and Shane Bieber develop into bigger stars than their prospect pedigree would've suggested.
Lest you chalk that up to a weak AL Central, the Milwaukee Brewers have spent less than the Reds in all but two of the past 10 seasons, and they've earned four playoff berths and a trip to the NLCS. Meanwhile, the Reds have made the playoffs just twice, losing in the wild-card round in 2013 and in an admittedly unfortunately timed 2020 season.
Yes, it’s easier to build a winning team when supported by a massive fan base such as that of the Los Angeles Dodgers or a super-wealthy owner such as the New York Mets’ Steve Cohen. But it’s also possible to inject life into a team by investing in young talent. That could mean developing state-of-the-art player development processes, a la Cleveland’s pitching assembly line. Or it could mean finding and anointing a franchise face, as the Seattle Mariners did last season with Julio Rodriguez.
The Mariners, of course, learned this lesson the hard way, after their former team president belittled Rodriguez and spoke of manipulating fellow top prospect Jarred Kelenic’s service time in a speaking engagement with literally a local Rotary Club.
Apparently the Reds and others haven’t quite learned the lesson yet: Fans see these young players as impending joy personified. Owners (and ownership-adjacent officials) who view them as expensive future burdens or subjects for prickly media questions would do well to at least keep quiet about it.
Follow Yahoo Sports' Zach Crizer on Twitter @zcrizer.